The Three Major Themes of the Old Testament

The Reverend Professor James L. Kelso, M.A., B.D. Xenia Theological Seminary, St. Lewis, MO.


The Old Testament deals with three outstanding subjects—man, men, and God. Or to put the same thought in allied terms, the three major themes of the Old Testament are Biography, History, and Theology.

The Old Testament is heavy with biography, for, like Jesus Christ, the Old Testament is more interested in people than in any other creation of God. Something of this prominent place of biography in Old Testament study is witnessed by the fact that three-fifths of the books in our English translation of the Old Testament bear as their titles the name of some man or woman, and yet this long list does not include such pre-eminent persons as Abraham, Moses, or David.

Furthermore, the Old Testament presents a peculiar type of biography, for it insists that the key factor in human life is a man’s relationship to his God. Again, like Jesus Christ, the Old Testament teaches that the highest goal in human experience consist of “love for God as expressed through a life obedient to His will.” Yea, the first and great commandment of both Christ and the Old Testament is (Deut. 6:5):

“And thou shalt love Jehovah thy God, with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy might.”

Thus Old Testament biography might almost be termed “doctrinal teaching by human example.” Here we see faith being interpreted into life, as Noah “moved with godly fear prepared an ark to the saving of his house,” or as Abraham, when he was called of God, hastened on to the land of promise. Here meekness becomes a reality in the personality of Moses, and here wisdom finds a salient example in Solomon. In short, it will be found that in the Old Testament doctrine is taught in large part by the biographies of those persons who observed some particular doctrine or doctrines with unusual care.

And yet the Old Testament never makes these “human doctrinal examples” to be perfect. With open frankness it shows that at times Abraham is faithless, Moses becomes the antithesis of meekness, and Solomon plays the fool. Indeed, by failure to measure up to spiritual ideals, as well as by success in those attainments, is doctrine taught; for thus both spiritual life and spiritual death are presented from the common ground of human experience.

But beyond these fallible examples of the spiritual life the Old Testament always looks onward and upward toward one who shall be more faithful than Abraham, more meek than Moses, and wiser than Solomon. It looks toward a sinless man, a perfect man, toward the Messiah. And in the glorious depicting of that great prophetic figure of the Christ, Old Testament biography reaches its climax.

Hand in hand with this study of Old Testament biography must go Old Testament history; for the Old Testament insists that men in their various collective groups are, like the individual man, directly responsible unto God for their actions. Thus the second major theme of the Old Testament is history.

Hastening at once in our brief historical study past the small but important group units such as family and tribe, and omitting entirely reference to institutions and arts, we come to the largest collective unit, namely, the nation. Nations, like individuals, crowd the pages of the Old Testament. Israel, Egypt, and Philistia, Assyria, Babylonia, and Persia—these and a host of other nations furnish us with an enormous wealth of data for studying the Old Testament conception of history.

In the Old Testament conception of history the basic truth is that God’s seal of approval can be placed only upon such national actions (or other group actions) as are done in the terms of God’s will for all the world. This international and universal aspect of Old Testament history is often overlooked or ignored, but it is a master key in exegesis. Thus the calling of Abraham may be reckoned of true historic value, for to him was the promise, “in thee shall all the families of the earth be blessed.” When the children of Israel accepted the ten commandments as their basic moral law it seemed only a national act, but since all civilized nations tend to adopt the same code the episode of the giving of the ten commandments takes on international significance. For the voluntary acceptance of this same moral code by all people will ultimately tend toward a common spiritual international life.

This Old Testament conception of history, which insists that all national actions must be interpreted in terms of God’s will for all the world, is most easily seen in the prophets—those master scholars who insist on treating history in terms of the future as well as of the past. Thus in the midst of wars and rumors of wars they look forward toward the glorious day when

“Nation shall not lift up sword against nation,
Neither shall they learn war any more.”

And in speaking of those enemies which were particularly bitter toward Israel we hear them quote God as saying,

“Blessed be Egypt my people
And Assyria the work of my hands
And Israel mine inheritance.”

The climax of Old Testament history is in the insistency that all nations must be brought to know God and thus be enabled to accomplish his will in the world’s affairs. Malachi summarizes all the Old Testament in this teaching when he utters that great prophecy—

“For from the rising of the sun unto the going down of the same, my name is great among the nations,

And in every place incense is offered unto my name and a pure offering:

For my name is great among the nations, saith Jehovah of hosts.”

Since a man’s relation to God is the decisive factor in estimating the true value of his life, and since a nation’s response to God’s will for all the world is the key to its true place in history, even so the crux of every phase of Old Testament thought and action lies in its conception of God. Therefore let us now turn to theology, the third major theme of the Old Testament, and study the central figure of the Old Testament, namely God.

The Old Testament is the original source-book for monotheism. For God, as it presents him, cannot be one God among many, but must be the One and Only True God. It recognizes that the people run after many gods, but it everywhere strikes at this idea. From the fields of intuition, logic and experience the Old Testament proves conclusively the doctrine of monotheism; and in doing so, of course, also destroys the pagan conceptions of polytheism, henotheism, pantheism, and atheism. This doctrine of monotheism is the initial step in theology.

The first glory of the Old Testament then is that it finds God. The second is that it describes God in such a way that men love him. It demonstrates that God has a benevolent interest in his creation. The doctrine of providence is written in big letters all over the Old Testament, but especially so in the experience of the Exodus. This outstanding example of God’s loving care instilled in Israel a love for Jehovah which even in the most degenerate days of the kingdom was never quite forgotten, though often misconstrued.

And from the doctrine of providence—God’s care for the physical man—the Old Testament leads on to the doctrine of grace—God’s care for the spiritual man. It is the acme of all the revealed benevolence of God that he forgives the sinner and reinstates him in the Divine love and purpose. Well does Micah cry out,

“Who is a God like unto thee,

That pardoneth iniquity, and passeth over the transgression of the remnant of his heritage?

He retaineth not his anger forever, because he delighteth in loving kindness.

He will again have compassion upon us; he will tread our iniquities under foot; and thou wilt cast all their sins into the depths of the sea.

Thou wilt perform the truth to Jacob, and the loving kindness to Abraham, which thou hast sworn unto our fathers from the days of old.”

But yet this doctrine of grace never robs God of his holiness. Instead, it magnifies his holiness until this moral attribute of God becomes the most common conception of God which leaps into our consciousness when we hear the generic term “god.” Indeed our mind like the Psalmist cries out, “Holy and reverend is his name.”

But these glorious revelations of the person and nature of God are not enough for the Old Testament prophets. As in their treatment of history, so now in their thought of God, they interpret their theme in terms of the future as well as the past. They predict another and yet finer revelation of God than that marvelous one which their own eyes behold. They predict the coming of Messiah who is to be “God manifest in the flesh.” It is true, these Old Testament prophets see him but as through a glass dimly, but THEY SEE HIM!

Yes, this Old Testament sees its Messiah. It sees him as the acme of biography—a perfect man. It sees him as the culmination of history—king of kings and lord of lords. It sees him as the finest expression of theology— “God manifest in the flesh.”

The golden milestone of every avenue of Old Testament thought is the Messiah, the Christ. He is the center toward which every Old Testament truth gravitates, just as he is the center from which every New Testament truth radiates. And herein is the unity of the Bible, that the ideal of the Old Testament is the actuality of the New Testament, the Messiah of the Old Testament, the Christ of the New Testament.

The unfolding of this Messianic hope is the final joy of Old Testament study. It is, indeed, in this that we, like the twain on the way to Emmaus, feel our hearts burning within us while He opens to us the Scriptures, and, beginning from Moses and from all the prophets, interprets to us in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself.